Gell’in with Easton


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Easton Anspach

If you are pressed for time skip to my questions at the bottom.

Personal Reflection

To begin with, I want to state that the title “Art and Agency,” feels misleading to me, which I guess is on some level Gell’s point. He calls for an anthropology in which we move away from aesthetics towards recognition of art objects as actors, “The simplest way to imagine this is to suppose that there could be a species of anthropological theory in which persons or ‘social agents’ are, in certain contexts, substituted for by art objects.” (5) In the process, he moves away from the standard Western practice of evaluating art as symbolically meaningful. In fact, Gell states “I entirely reject the idea that anything, except language itself, has ‘meaning’ in the intended sense.” (6) Instead, “In place of symbolic communication, I place all the emphasis on agency, intention, causation, result, and transformation.” As a result, Gell effectively collapses the traditional definitions of art so that anything can become an art object and his anthropological theory of art as a study of social relations in the vicinity of objects mediating social agency becomes effectively a holistic study of culture. In fact, this can become a theory of everything, which puts it in a danger of becoming a theory of nothing as well.

But putting that aside, Gell’s approach is to study the relations between actors (including objects) in order to “explain why people behave as they do” (11). These relations he defines as art-like situations which “can be discriminated as those in which the material ‘index’ (the visible, physical, ‘thing’) permits a particular cognitive operation which I identify as the abduction of agency.” (13) This idea of index is borrowed from C.S. Peirce and is used by Gell to argue that art objects are those things from which we determine an action or intention is in place, i.e. where there is smoke there is fire. This agency, therefore, makes agents of all those who are the source of these causal events (16). He draws a distinction, however, between self-sufficient agents and secondary agents who only have minds and intentions attributed to them (17). Therefore, objects are actors and agents but only through their association with humans. However, Gell makes a point of saying that agents are and do not merely use artefacts, a point essential to his discussion of the distributed person.

As a relational theory, then, Gell utilizes four terms Index, Artist, Recipient, and Prototype (27) which act on each other in basic binary relations of agent/patient which can be become incredibly complex (28-50). He goes on to say that “it may be supposed that whatever type of action a person may perform vis-à-vis another person, may be performed also by a work of art.” (66) This performance is in fact an essential part of agency which is expressed in the captivation of the spectator. Here Gell makes a case study of decorative art which shows the complexity and unfinished business of decorative design which makes these objects powerful. They are “cognitively sticky.” (86) Gell goes on then to draw an analogy between the performance of music, dance, and art and their cognitive indecipherability. (95) He ends with the idea that we can distribute ourselves through objects and, therefore, cast a much wider net of relations and expand our social spheres.

Questions and Critique

I am not sure I agree with Gell’s definition of art, art objects, or art situations. I was really enthralled by his study but found myself resisting his downplaying of aesthetics in other cultures merely because they are important in ours. This may be a personal bias, but I am eager to hear others thoughts.

Do we truly believe that language is the only thing with intended meaning? Does Gell simplify the differences in cultural art and appreciation? Aren’t icons themselves dependent on symbolic conventions?

I also found myself troubled by Gell’s use of index. I studied Pierce intensely last semester and find that Gell seems to collapse Peirce’s concept of icon and index in his use of the terminology (97). What’s more, Peirce sees icon, index, and symbol as intricately related and dependent on each other and Gell’s dismissal of the symbolic aspect is a little disturbing in this light.

How does this inform last week’s discussion of the fetish. On page 62 Gell states that “These relations are not referred to symbolically, as if they could exist independently of their manifestation in this particular form; for these relations have produced this particular thing in its concrete, factual, presence; and it is because these relations exist(ed) that the fetish can exercise its judicial role.” How does this definition of the fetish factor into Keane’s discussion of the mediatory role of fetish or Pel’s association of the fetish with rarity and fantasy?

Do we really believe that all of our actions may also be performed by an object? (66)

Could we argue that Gell’s unfinished business (80) could be related to Brown’s definition of things as objects which can’t quite be defined? Is that why they hold such an important place in our society?

Is it true that we never admire a decorated object solely for its aesthetics (81)?

How efficacious is his concept of a distributed person? Do we truly see people in our objects of daily life? How often do you recognize the president on the coin you are spending or the person depicted on the stamp on the letter you receive? In a culture becoming more material, as we have seen argued, is distributing our person making us thinner or more omnipresent?

Can Gell’s work be seen as structuralist? Especially in light of his arguments about the internal working of decorative indexes?


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